Author: Today in World War I

Estonian and White Offensive Towards Petrograd

May 18 1919, Narva–The arrival of British naval forces in December had turned the tide in Estonia, and by the end of January the Estonians had retaken Narva, securing their frontiers.  Efforts to secure peace with the Soviets (via mediation from the Hungarians) fell through after pressure from the British, and by May the Estonians had decided to launch an offensive into Russia along with the Royal Navy and White forces under the overall leadership of Yudenich (formerly of the Caucasus front). The offensive began in force on May 18, and soon made considerable progress.

Their cause was helped soon by a mutiny in the Krasnaya Gorka fortress on the Gulf of Finland, most of the way to Petrograd (only about twice as far from Petrograd as Kronstadt is).  The Estonian government, hopeful that their Ingrian allies would reach the mutineers, chose not to tell the Whites until it was too late; swift action by Stalin crushed the mutiny with naval forces from Kronstadt, and the immediate threat to Petrograd was removed.  Unsurprisingly, Stalin saw enemies everywhere, and soon after this success, executed 67 officers from Kronstadt on trumped-up charges.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Greeks Land in Smyrna


Greek troops in Smyrna on May 15.

May 15 1919, Smyrna [İzmir]–After the Italians pulled out of the peace conference, they began to start occupying their demanded territories without waiting for a peace settlement.  While unwilling to provoke a war with Yugoslavia over Fiume, there was little stopping them in Anatolia, and in late April occupied Antalya, followed in early May by Fethiye, Marmaris, and Bodrum further west, close to the Italian-occupied Dodecanese.   To forestall further Italian landings to the north, the Big Three, agreed on May 6 to Lloyd George’s suggestion that the Greeks should occupy Smyrna; the Italians learned of this when they returned to Paris the next day. 

The landing, which occurred on May 15, did not go smoothly; while there was no organized Turkish resistance, the occasional shot was fired at the Greeks, who retaliated fiercely; several hundred Turks were killed, and Turkish houses were looted by both Greek troops and parts of the local Greek population.  In the coming weeks, Greece would occupy their zone of occupation around Smyrna, and they would remain there for over three years.

Mustafa Kemal left Constantinople the next day for Samsun in Anatolia, hoping to reorganize a Turkish resistance to the Allies who seemed prepared to carve up the country.  The British in fact gave him the visa to leave the capital, hoping that he would restore law and order in Anatolia.

Sources include: Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon.

Soviets Respond to Food Relief Offer

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).  His Fram expedition had reached 86°13′ N in 1895.  Undeterred by the failure of the 1919 relief offer, he would try again, with some more success, in 1921.

May 15 1919, Moscow–After the idea of a conference on Prinkipo fell through, the Allies had little contact with the Soviets, apart from an American mission which was ignored, and Smuts’ very indirect approach via Béla Kun.  In large part, this was because they did not want to; the French hated the Soviets, as did much of Lloyd George’s coalition.  News from Russia was limited and of exceedingly poor quality (The New York Times printed headlines in May claiming that Petrograd had fallen to the Finns), but what little there was suggested a humanitarian crisis in a country now completely cut off from the outside world.  Hoover, head of food relief in Europe, suggested that food relief be extended to the Soviets as well–this would help the people of Russia and possibly help bring Russia back into the community of nations.

To avoid the perception that this would be yet another Allied intervention in Russia, Hoover proposed that Russian food aid be organized via a prominent neutral–Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer.  Under Nansen’s leadership, Norway and other neutral countries would deliver food and medical aid to Russia, provided ceasefires were arranged in the civil war.  The offer went out from Berlin (as the Allies refused to send it), and on May 15 the Soviets responded.  Lenin had instructed Chicherin and Litvinov to be “extremely polite to Nansen, extremely insolent to Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau,” and they were, rejecting outright the idea of ceasefires without a formal peace conference.  The Allies would do nothing else that attempted to reach out to the Soviets during the remainder of the Paris Peace Conference.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919

Wilson Agrees to US Mandate in Armenia

May 14 1919, Paris–The Allies were well aware of the Armenian genocide, from reports of both survivors and neutral observers, and there was strong public support for the Armenian cause in the Allied countries.  Although the Armenians had secured their independence the previous year at Sardarabad, they still faced threats from the Soviets to the north and the Turks still occupied large amounts of territory that had had considerable Armenian populations before the genocide.  The Armenians recognized they needed outside protection, especially now that their usual patron, the Russians, could no longer be relied upon.

In late February, an Armenian delegation to Paris asked for recognition, large territorial concessions from Turkey, and protection under the United States.  On May 14, Wilson agreed that the United States would take on Armenia as a mandate under the League of Nations.  The proposed area was huge, stretching as far as the Mediterranean (and thus running into French claims in the area, though Clemenceau did not object).  This was a promise that Wilson must have known he could not fulfill; he had even previously told the Supreme Council that “he could think of nothing the people of the United States would be less inclined to accept than military responsibility in Asia.”  The Senate, under Republican control, would certainly not agree to an American mandate over territories of a power they had never been at war with.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Council of Four Approves Czech-Austria Border

May 12 1919, Paris–While the German peace terms were largely complete and had been presented to the Germans themselves, the Allies were still working out the terms for Austria and the other Central Powers.  In part this was because Italy had left the peace conference for a while (though they had since returned with little fanfare), but largely this was because the other Central Powers posed little threat –Germany, still intact, had to be handled quickly; Austria, a rump of its former self, could be put off until later.

On May 12, the Council of Four (once again including Italy) agreed on the present border between Austria and Czechoslovakia.  The new borders left around 3 million German-speakers in Czechoslovakia, but many of these were in the Sudetenland on the German border, far away from Austria.  While Austria claimed these areas, they could not effectively govern them without unifying with Germany, which the Allies were unwilling to consider.  The German delegation was busy with the German peace terms, and had little time to consider the Austrian terms as well; Brockdorff-Rantzau would only mention the Sudeten Germans once, in passing.  As for the Sudeten Germans themselves, many of them preferred the relative stability of Czechoslovakia to the instability of the new left-wing governments in Germany and Austria; the example of nearby Munich was not far from their minds.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919

Germans First Hear Peace Terms

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Germany’s Foreign Minister for much of the first half of 1919, pictured the year before.

May 7 1919, Versailles–The Germans had been summoned to the peace conference in late April.  They had hoped, as had originally been anticipated by all parties, that the last few months had been the Allies preparing their peace terms, and now would come the time for the actual peace negotiations.  The German delegation brought with it crates upon crates of material to back up these negotiations that they were never to have.

On May 7, the German delegation was brought to the Trianon Palace Hotel.  Clemenceau told them: “The hour has struck for the weighty settlement of oura account.  You asked us for peace.  We are disposed to grant it to you,” before outlining the major features of the peace deal: Germany would lose her colonies, parts of Silesia, and the Polish Corridor.  Danzig would become a free city, the Saar would be effectively a French protectorate, the Rhineland would be occupied for over a decade, Germany would owe a large reparations bill, the League of Nations would not include Germany among her initial members, and that the war had been “imposed upon [the Allies] by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

The head of the German delegation, German Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau, gave an angry speech during which he insisted on remaining seated; it did not help that his interpreters did a poor job of translating his words.  In particular, he rankled at “the demand…that we shall acknowledge that we alone are guilty of having caused the war….Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie.”  His words misrepresented the treaty (which never used the word “guilt”), and had almost certainly been prepared before he had even seen the text of the treaty. Lloyd George snapped an ivory letter-opener in two during the speech; Wilson called it “the most tactless speech I have ever heard.  The Germans really are a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing.”  Balfour was more generous, saying merely that “I make it a rule never to stare at people when they are in obvious distress.”

The mood among the German delegation, and back in Germany, was that of shock and anger, especially at the Americans, whom they had hoped would spare them.  In the final weeks before the terms of the treaty were published, an American observer noted: 

The Germans have little left but Hope.  But having only that I think they have clung to it–the Hope that the Americans would do something, the Hope that the final terms would not be so severe as the Armistice indicated and so on.  Subconsciously, I think the Germans have been more optimistic than they realized….When they see the terms in cold print, there will be intense bitterness, hate and desperation.

Sources include: Gregor Dallas, 1918: War and Peace; Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Third Afghan War

The Royal Horse Artillery in action against Afghan forces, pictured later in the month.

May 6 1919, Peshawar–Habibullah Khan, who had successfully kept his nation neutral during the war, was assassinated in February 1919.  A power struggle ensued among his relatives, including his brother Nasrullah (who had been pro-German during the war) and his son Amanullah.  By April, Amanullah had won, but his hold on power was insecure.  In an attempt to unify the country against an external enemy and to placate anti-British elements that had favored his uncle, Amanullah planned to invade India.  The recent unrest in India, heightened by the massacre in Amritsar, raised hopes that the local population would assist them–the Afghans planned for an uprising in Peshawar on May 8.

However, Afghan troops crossed the Khyber Pass early, taking the town of Bagh on May 3.  In response, British India declared war on Afghanistan on May 6.  They quickly heightened security in Peshawar and began to more troops towards Bagh.  However, the British Indian government did not have high quality troops at their disposal; the war in Europe had called up most of their units, and many were still there or had demobilized upon their return.  Many of the available forces there were part of the Territorial Force, meant for home defense in Britain, but who had been stationed in India to free up Indian Army troops for service abroad.  These men were anxious to return home and had little interest in fighting in another war.

Mass Protests in China Against Peace Deal

Student leaders of the protests in Beijing, pictured on May 7 after being released from custody.

May 4 1919, Beijing–News that the Allies had decided to effectively hand over Tsingtao to the Japanese, contrary to the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination, reached China in early May.  It provoked an immediate reaction from the students at Peking University; one recalled:

When the news of the Paris Peace Conference finally reached us we were greatly shocked.  We at once awoke to the fact that foreign nations were still selfish and militaristic and that they were all great liars.  I remember the night of May 2nd and very few of us slept. A group of my friends and I talked almost the whole night.  We came to the conclusion that a greater world war would be coming sooner or later, and that this great war would be fought in the East.  We had nothing to do with our government, that we knew very well, and at the same time we could no longer depend upon the principles of any so-called great leader like Woodrow Wilson, for example.  Looking at our people and at the pitiful ignorant masses, we couldn’t help but feel that we must struggle.

On May 4, several thousand students congregated on Tienanmen Square.  Many carried placards with slogans like “Give Us Back Tsingtao” or “Do Away With the Twenty-One Demands” or “China Belongs to the Chinese.” In the afternoon, they moved towards the foreign legations; unable to find anyone thought to be in the pay of the Japanese, they instead assaulted the Chinese ambassador to Japan.

Attempts by the Chinese government to crack down on the protests were unsuccessful, and only encouraged more protests, both in Beijing and elsewhere around the country.  It also quickly soured relations between the government in Beijing and rival factions in the south, which quickly embraced nationalist sentiments to co-opt the May Fourth Movement.  Public opinion and intellectual life also turned decidedly away from the West that had betrayed them; some of the leaders of the movement founded the Chinese Communist Party two years later.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Dominion Victory Parade in London

New Zealand troops parade in front of the King at Buckingham Palace.

May 3 1919, London–The demobilization of armies that had taken years to build up was a long and slow process, especially when those armies came from across an ocean.  Many thousands of British Dominion troops remained in Britain, growing impatient at the wait to return home.  To reward them for their service, and to give the British people a spectacle while they waited for the final peace from Paris, on May 3 over 12,000 Dominion troops paraded through London, led by 5,000 men of the Canadian Corps.  Over 100,000 Londoners lined the streets.

Sources include: Derek Grout, Thunder in the Skies.

Belgium Demands Part of German East Africa

May 2 1919, Paris–Belgium had suffered more during the war than any other Western European country during the war, with over 90% of its European territory occupied and stripped for resources.  Nonetheless, it was difficult for them to be heard at the Peace Conference–the French suspected them of trying to annex Luxembourg, Wilson did not prioritize their claims, and Lloyd George thought that Britain had done quite enough for Belgium already over four years of fighting in Flanders.  On April 29, the Belgians began to make demands of the Allies.  They wanted territory from the Dutch in order to gain free access to the sea for the port of Antwerp; the Dutch, not even at the Peace Conference, refused to entertain the idea.  Instead, the Belgians were given the German towns of Eupen and Malmedy.

The Belgians also wanted the costs of their war effort to be paid for by Germany, and to get first priority of any reparations payments; as their country had been almost entirely occupied during the war, they had had to pay for the entire war on credit.  The British and the French, who also wanted payment from Germany, were opposed to the idea, but were ultimately convinced by the Americans.

Finally, the Belgians wanted gains in Africa, as well.  Their troops had participated in the offensive that secured German East Africa and now occupied around a third of the territory; on May 2, they demanded that they receive a mandate over this region.  In reality, they had little interest in this region, instead hoping to trade it to Portugal in exchange for part of Angola’s Atlantic coast.  The British strenuously objected, Lloyd George calling it “A most impudent claim…At a time when the British Empire had millions of soldiers fighting for Belgium, a few black troops had been sent into German East Africa.”  More importantly, the areas the Belgians claimed would block the route of the Cape-to-Cairo railway the British hoped to build.

The British were unable to work out a deal with the Portuguese, and planned to reject the Belgian claims altogether.  But the Belgians, who already felt they were not getting enough in Europe, insisted, and the British ultimately agreed to give the Belgians part of German East Africa–territories that would eventually become Rwanda and Burundi.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.